Dog Manual

Prolonging The Life Of The Old Dog

Prolonging the life of the old dog depends directly on our knowledge of the diseases of old age. The study of the diseases of old age is called geriatrics, and it is only in recent years that it has been subjected to systematic and critical consideration. It was not so long ago that the treatment of the diseases of old age consisted essentially in an effort to keep the patient comfortable, the casual administration of drugs that would relieve pain, and the application of halfhearted medical measures, given with a kind of benign hopelessness. The outlook was generally a dismal one. Veterinary medicine had little faith in its ability to combat nature in this regard. The diseases of old age were accepted as somehow inevitable and research was therefore not sufficiently stimulated to undertake the quest of solving the problems involved. The result was that if a dog did live to a ripe old age, it was due more to extraordinary vigor or to meticulous care than to any exceptional medical efforts on the part of the veterinary surgeon. The fact is that most dogs did not often get the opportunity to become old. Potent diseases readily decimated their numbers while they were still in the prime of life. There simply were not many old dogs around. Neither the interest nor the opportunity nor the necessity to study the diseases of old dogs seemed apparent. And science usually records its most dramatic achievements when the interest is present, the opportunity to study is available, and the necessity is relatively immediate.

The situation has changed drastically in the last few decades. Remarkable discoveries in the form of life-saving drugs and refinements in surgical techniques have so substantially increased life expectancy that dogs have continued to live into hoary old age in increasingly larger numbers, until they now account for a respectable percentage of our canine population. The mere presence of such overwhelming numbers of old dogs supplied the interest, the opportunity, and the necessity for the systematic study of the diseases of old age. Though geriatrics is still in its infancy, its achievements have already been noteworthy and it continues in ever-widening measure to contribute to our understanding of the diseases of old age, with its consequent prolongation of the life of our favorite pet, the dog. In this regard, veterinary science owes an inestimable debt to human medical research.

There is no hard-and-fast rule by which old age can be strictly defined. Some dogs, like some people, grow old at an earlier age than others. The life span of the average dog ranges from about nine to thirteen years, though cases of dogs living from fifteen to twenty years are not uncommon. We would be safe, then, in classifying as aged dogs those from about eight to ten years old, while being aware of individual differences wherein animals might become old below or above this range.

Old age is specifically characterized by the appearance of gray hair under the lips and around the nose, with gradual extension to the region of the eyes and to the forehead. The ends of the digits become enlarged and the claws have a tendency to become curved and elongated. Often the muzzle also becomes enlarged. In some animals, especially those that are affected with a chronic skin irritation of the back and loins, there may be a partial loss of hair and a general thickening of the skin in the diseased area. The appearance of warts is quite common in many breeds. As a dog gets older, the color of the pupil of the normal eye seems to change gradually from deep blue to whitish. Some dogs have a tendency to increase somewhat in weight, but most often there is a gradual loss of weight and dehydration of the tissues of the body. That there is a gradual though obvious loss of vigor goes almost without saying.

Old age is further characterized by a gradual degeneration of the various organs of the body. The diseases that cause these degenerations are our primary concern in the treatment of the diseases of old age. Prolonging the life of the old dog depends upon our ability to prevent these diseases from taking place and our efforts to retard their development once they have appeared. These are very challenging problems that demand all the resources that the veterinarian has at his disposal.

The most common degenerative diseases that are the direct concern of geriatrics are discussed in detail throughout this website. They will be reviewed here briefly in a general way, with emphasis upon suggestions on how to prolong the life of the old dog.
Possibly the most common area of degeneration in old dogs is the kidney. It is safe to say that the large majority of old dogs that live out their natural lives die ultimately of some form of kidney degeneration. Dogs with kidney troubles may vomit intermittently; be sensitive to pressure over the kidneys; have excessive, diminished, or abnormally colored urinations, and intermittent lameness of one or both hind legs; present an arched back or other signs of abdominal pain; have an unpredictable appetite; and may be depressed to a variable degree. Positive diagnosis is established on the basis of urine and blood analyses, and treatment depends upon the nature of the ailment. With kidney degenerations, as with degenerations of any other organ, treatment is always most successful in the early stages. While complete success in arresting the degenerative process is rarely if ever possible, prompt treatment can often retard the development of the degeneration to the point where the animal's life may be comfortably extended for several years. The alert owner who detects any of the above-mentioned symptoms should have the pet examined without unnecessary delay.

Degenerations of the lungs are also extremely common. The best-known of these conditions is asthma, which is characterized by the appearance of a persistent cough, of a variable degree of depth, that becomes more raucous as the condition progresses. The veterinarian diagnoses the condition by observing the symptoms and by detecting asthmatic sounds with the stethoscope. Treatment usually is only alleviatory, since no cure for asthma has been determined. Mild cases of asthma are no deterrent to the well-being of old dogs, and, with relatively simple treatment, most dogs that are affected with it are permitted to live out their natural lives. In very severe cases, the animal is so uncomfortable that it is often put painlessly to sleep to avoid unnecessary suffering for the animal. The dog owner should remember that the disease should be treated while it is still mild and while treatment can still be reasonably effective.

Heart ailments are fairly common in older dogs. They may occur independently, but will be noted most often in asthmatic animals. The only symptom of which the pet owner may be aware is an occasional fainting spell. Diagnosis is often extremely subtle and difficult, and treatment is usually based on the effort to strengthen heart action and to retard any degenerative process. Here again, the owner should be reminded that since asthma and heart trouble often come together in older dogs, a fainting spell should always be given proper consideration. Also, since the signs of asthma are so much more apparent than those of heart trouble, and since asthma can actually cause certain heart ailments, any cough in old dogs should be looked upon as a serious symptom.

While teeth are not essential to life in the dog, dental troubles can cause discomfort in the dog and often impair its appetite. Thus it is imperative that the dog whose life we intend to prolong have a healthy mouth. Older dogs often develop heavy incrustations of tartar on the teeth. The tartar presses against the gums, causing recession and sloughing of the gum tissue, with a consequent loosening of the teeth in their sockets. A nauseating odor is given off by the mouth.

In rare instances, dogs have been known to ultimately die from the absorption of toxic materials from inflamed gums due to bad teeth. The teeth should be cleaned periodically and loose teeth should be removed. Even if all the teeth have to be removed, it should not cause the owner undue concern. The function of the teeth of the dog is not so much to chew food as to tear it to bits. By grinding up and dicing the dog's food the owner accomplishes the essential task of the teeth. The toothless dog fed in this manner will thrive quite well. It is apparent that if the dog is to be maintained in the most vigorous state of health, the teeth should be given proper attention. If they are cleaned about twice a year after the age of five, or whenever it may be necessary, it is very unlikely that any serious dental troubles will ever be encountered.

To prolong the life of the old dog, it is well to keep the animal free of parasites and to alleviate skin irritations as soon as they appear. While skin irritations are not in themselves fatal, they cause great unrest and can readily lead to depletion and exhaustion in the aged animal. This can lead to lack of appetite and sometimes have many dire consequences.

Eye irritations and degenerations are also very common. Eye degenerations sometimes progress with great rapidity, and when they progress too far are often difficult or impractical to treat. In order to avoid serious consequences, the owner is advised to give eye conditions in old dogs immediate veterinary attention no matter how insignificant they might appear. That these eye conditions are most often purely local in character and have a negligible effect on the longevity of the animal is obvious, but the end result might easily lead to blindness, and if this occurs the life of the pet is hardly worth living.

While cancerous growths may appear in dogs of any age, they are apparently more common in older dogs and especially in females. The disastrous consequences of this dread disease has been amply publicized in the human family, and it may be emphasized that they are just as bad in the dog.
The conscientious pet owner should always seek professional advice regarding any growth that may appear on the animal, for neglect in this instance might easily lead to death, while timely surgical intervention can very often save the animal's life.

There are many other diseases of a relatively minor nature that should be given proper attention: such conditions as neuralgia, rheumatism, and the likeā€”in other words, all those conditions which tend to add to the animal's discomfort. The animal that will lead a long life is usually the one that always feels well. The animal that is always in a state of semi-discomfort may in time lose its desire to live.

Of paramount importance are good hygiene, proper feeding, and frequent grooming. The animal should be kept in clean, comfortable, and airy quarters. Fresh water should be available at all times. The animal should be given sufficient exercise to meet its needs. It is clear that the old dog does not have the vigor of a puppy and its exercise requirements become modified as it becomes older. The client should be in constant touch with his veterinarian in order to know the exercise requirements of the individual animal. These requirements will naturally vary with the size, breed and general background of the animal in question. Obviously a dog that has hunted all its life or one that has been brought up on a farm will require more exercise than the sedentary animal or one that is city-bred.

Proper feeding will vary with the age, disposition, and state of health of the individual animal. Animals that present early symptoms of certain degenerative diseases will be fed differently from those that do not present such symptoms. Certain dogs will demand greater vitamin supplements than others. Some will require larger quantities of meat protein, while with others, different sources of protein may prove more desirable. If these feeding requirements are met, longevity is almost sure to be enhanced. Any modification in ration should always be determined by the veterinarian.

Proper grooming and bathing will prolong the life of a dog indirectly. They will discourage external parasites and will make the animal generally more comfortable. The animal should be given a thorough daily combing, and during the warmer seasons of the year it is advisable to clip the hair of certain breeds. Proper grooming will prevent a considerable variety of diseases, and the comfort that will be derived from it will encourage the animal to live with the delightful zest that pet lovers like to see in their dogs.

To summarize, we may fall back on the super-prosaic maxim that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If the owner can be impelled to make an honest effort to cooperate with his veterinarian in preventing disease and in treating disease without delay whenever it should happen to strike, there is every likelihood that he will be blessed with a happy and healthy pet for a good long time to come.